I’ve always been fascinated by the intricacies of catching bass and those anglers who become intimately familiar with their quarry. Most often, big-money events and their corresponding champions steal the headlines in the bass fishing media.
In this day and age, full-time professional anglers dominate the highest level of professional fishing. While they sometimes unlock secrets known to few anglers, it’s often their ability to locate and catch bass quickly that proves to be the winning ticket, rather than mastering a particular body of water.
Occasionally, however, we hear of professional events being dominated by an unbeatable local with knowledge of a fishery or local technique that borders on legendary. I remember years ago learning the name Tidwell while investigating Pickwick’s legendary lunker smallmouth. From what I remember, one of the Alabama locals from a legendary bloodline of fishermen employed anchoring techniques never before seen in pro bass competition to catch fish no one else knew existed.
Later, I dug up all the dirt I could on a man named Monsoor, his supposed commercial fishing background, and his then little-known swim-jigging technique that dominated the upper Mississippi River. From what I knew at the time, a jig was to be used for underhand slings into bushes, not skimmed across weed flats. Today we all know different.
And who could forget one of the greatest exhibitions of local dominance to date, when Kelly Pratt won the James River Bassmaster Northern Open targeting bass that were keying on a summertime blue crab molt that few had ever witnessed, catching all of his bass off a handful of magical logs? Are you kidding me?
As a fan of mastery, I’m always enamored by these tournament occurrences. Therefore, I can’t resist further investigation into the latest installment:
“If they detect something is not right, or if they detect they are being fished for, they won’t bite and it’s over.”
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Guntersville guide Jonathan Henry had just won the Rayovac event there, and, in his press interview with FLW, he was explaining fish of a truly different breed.
“If you can sneak up on them and get them to bite on the first cast and get them fired up – it provokes a feeding frenzy of big bass like you have never seen, and that’s what happened this morning” he continued. I had to learn more.
I spoke with Henry this week, determined to learn how, exactly, he came to realize that Guntersville’s lunker population was taking on a level of intelligence comparable only to a mythological fish named Jaws.
Henry had grown up fishing in East Tennessee, calling Boone Lake home. It's a lake that hosts up to 10 tournaments weekly, and where any five-fish limit is often a decent string. Through years of experience targeting extremely pressured fish, he learned techniques that he later applied to Guntersville’s bounty and found some unusual results.
“The fish know they are being fished for. I originally figured that out with the BassTrix swimbait,” he said.
Henry reasoned that when he began swimbaiting for lunkers around Guntersville’s renowned bridges, it's unlikely that a BassTrix even existed in Alabama. At that time, he could pull in between dozens of boats fishing one hotspot and immediately catch “way too many fish."
Over time, Henry picked up on the subtleties of swimbaiting heavily pressured, suspended fish.
I had heard from numerous sources that Guntersville lays claim to some of the most cut-throat anglers in the country, and fishermen will often immediately move in on an angler who fires up a school. Henry confirmed that fact, and stated that the truly large fish – those over 6 pounds – have simply become afraid of fishermen.
“They are definitely scared of people,” he said.
For that reason, Henry does all he can to never let the school detect his presence. If he hangs up his bait, he won’t “pop” his line to try and free the snagged lure. He feels this scares the resident bass.
In addition, he begins his retrieve immediately after the cast touches down to avoid having his line pass through the school of fish ahead of his bait. Henry “swings” the lure into the fish with a pendulum style instead, and prefers to begin fishing the school up high in order to activate them. He mentioned that most often he’s fishing 4 to 8 feet down over 10 to 15 feet of water.
The amount of pressure on the resident bridge-fish at Guntersville cannot be overstated. Henry mentioned that, at any time, there are usually 10 to 15 boats fishing several of the bridges of Guntersville, all day, every day. While that may frustrate many anglers, leading them in search of less-pressured water, Henry has come to accept it and learn from it.
A full-time guide on Guntersville (Henry was running two trips the day I reached him), he often “hangs around” the bridges, as they are simply good fishing spots. There, clients are regularly treated to large numbers of quality fish. Henry takes it all in, further learning the intricate behaviors of the resident schools. He claims he often “tracks” the schools of bass as they move, can tell when they are moving, and often can guess where they are headed, thereby adjusting his fishing route accordingly.
Henry mentioned that his primary weapon of choice today is the publicized Scottsboro Tackle swimbait he used in his recent victory, and that he also throws a big Zara Spook into the mix on occasion. His largest fish from Guntersville is a 10-11 monster, and he purposely fishes very few tournaments to avoid giving away his strategy.
I found it incredibly interesting that, when describing his recent big win, he mentioned he felt more relieved than excited. He stated that he felt it was “finally over," as if he had planned to sneak up and snatch the title all along, and it didn’t sound like he’d be fishing any more derbies anytime in the near future.
Near the conclusion of our interview, when it appeared that Henry felt as if he had Guntersville’s giants all figured out, the intoxicating lore of bass fishing popped in. Surely, he had a better understanding of the fish and the swimbait technique than just about anyone, and that explained his frequent incredible catches.
But then, with a pause, Henry simply stated, “I don’t even understand it myself."
(Joe Balog is the often outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)